U2’s Achtung Baby: a turning point that marked the 90s

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I’m ready, I’m ready for the laughing gas
I’m ready, ready for what’s next

After the unsuccessful and presumptuous  Rattle and Hum, U2 returned in 1991 with the album of the turning point. The choice of whether to continue on the good track with The Joshua Tree or change and get renewed is tends to go on the second option, and the idea is to bring a radical and courageous musical change.

With Achtung Baby, U2 come back in recovering to Brian Eno‘s services, and Eno welcomes them with open arms, although they preferred Jimmy Iovine for the previous album. Production is back to Daniel Lanois, who was there for The Unforgattable Fire and The Joshua Tree.

The implosion that almost took place in the late 1980s had forced Bono and associates to seek a new direction, something that would allow them to enter the new decade leaving behind an important phase of their career (probably unrepeatable), not giving up their status as the most important band on the planet.

The singer and The Edge pushed to start again from new sounds and influences, while Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton preferred to continue in the old, consolidated way (that had given excellent results of sales), insisting that there was nothing wrong in their typical sound.

In addition to these internal tensions there was also the end of Edge’s marriage, cracking the residual serenity and bringing further stress.

After futile attempts to find a quadrature, just when the recordings of the new album seemed to have an impasse, leading potentially to the end of the band, The Edge invented the melody of what would become One and things began to turn.

All doubts, fears and misunderstandings vanished from U2 minds. They embraced in a surprising and enthusiastic way this new musical course. The Dublin group turned towards an epidermal mutation that could look radical in the form, but didn’t really modify their DNA, basically satisfying everybody.

The songs were dressed new, with distortions and overlaps, industrial approaches, dance attempts and electronic contamination, with U2 building a lineup of songs modern and classic at the same time. All this was mainly guided by Eno’s intermediation between the two souls of the group, which allowed the album to reach the end without further tension.

Among the many beautiful pieces that characterize Achtung Baby and raise it to the dimension of a masterpiece, two are emblematic of this project.

One is The Fly, the single that shocks the distracted listener on the radio and leads him to wonder if the announcer has mistaken the name of the band that is playing. This hit, where Satan tells a child various secrets about life, is the song with which U2 are introduced again to the world after Rattle and Hum, disorienting it, proving to be more alive than ever. Moreover, Bono is amused to mock himself after the hard criticisms received for its alleged megalomania (a characteristic that occasionally comes up in him) and creates the character of The Fly, the caricature of the spoiled rockstar, with which he will invade the stages in the lucky and innovative Zoo TV Tour, with his black glasses and his leather jacket.

The other song is One, of course, perhaps the most famous composition of the group. It is a tormented and painful song and that can be read under multiple angles. There you can identify references to the difficulties of the group in regaining their lost harmony, or the desperate and anguished attempt to find meaning at the end of The Edge marriage. Another interpretation is the story of the cracked relationship between Bono and his father after his mother’s death, or maybe it’s just the story of the end of love.

In addition to these two milestones, the other notable pieces are Until the End of the World (in whose text Judas confesses to Jesus his betrayal), Love Is Blindness (the dark chasm of a finished love), So Cruel (another desperate ballad) and Acrobat (the complications in relating with the others).

Achtung Baby is U2’s ideal evolution and leads them to break away from the previous decade without denying their own style, confirming what good was done and exploring new territories. For many it is their absolute masterpiece, competing with The Joshua Tree. For sure, Achtung Baby is one of the best albums of the 90s, able to capture the listeners thanks to inspired lyrics and intelligent melodies, magnified by the electronic elements.

After Achtung Baby, Zooropa will come and U2 will further continue their experimental path. Then it will be time for Pop. And it’s not just the name of an album.

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